Edible Fungi Club

By Gill Banks

The Edible Fungi Club (EFC) was formed in March 2022 by Gill Banks “who has a keen interest in mycology, be it recording fungi in the Tayside and Fife area through forays with the Tayside and Fife Fungi Group (TAFFG) or growing edible varieties”.

Gill writes: “I asked some people within agroecology if they would join such a group and was encouraged to see that people were interested. Because of this, senior management at the James Hutton Institute were approached and asked if it was possible to hold meetings for a club in the Living Field polytunnel, which at that time was unused. After consultation with various people at the Institute such as Hutton’s Health and Safety and Plant Health officer, and some form filling, the club had an area in which to meet.”

Edible | Exotic | Gourmet

The aim of the EFC is to provide “edible exotic and gourmet mushrooms” to people who may not have access to them (such as Lion’s mane which is a red listed protected species in the UK) and to encourage people to recycle some waste products such as cardboard and coffee grounds. The club also wishes to explore other uses of fungi such as making clothes, packaging, myco-remediation and eventually medicinal aspects.

The Institute’s Social Club kindly donated £100 to help start up, the farm staff gave bales of straw and an Aberdeenshire farmer donated 75 kg of spring barley that is used to produce grain spawn (see below). 

The club charges £2 a session to cover costs of items such as wood pellets, mushroom bags, and liquid cultures, syringes, needles and so on that are required to successfully grow predominantly straw- and wood-loving mushrooms such as: Pink Oyster, Yellow Oyster, Summer Oyster, Blue/grey Oyster, King Oyster, Lions Mane, Black Pearl (a blue/grey Oyster and King Oyster hybrid) amongst others. The club can produce liquid mycelium, grain spawn (see photos below) and provide mushroom kits/substrates at a much-reduced price if members want to grow mushrooms in their home.

Grain spawn

Grain spawn is easy to use and an inexpensive method to bulk up mycelium. The process begins in a petri dish or liquid culture and can take several weeks to months depending upon the mushroom that is being grown.

In the photographs below, from left to right, we can see a petri dish with king oyster mycelium, liquid culture, and grain spawn.

The mycelium is the root-like, vegetative body of a mushroom that can be obtained in several ways, including from tissue culture, liquid culture, or spores.  Liquid culture is a nutrient-rich solution that contains the mycelium and is used as a medium for growing and propagating mushroom cultures.

The mycelium when suspended in a nutrient solution, will grow, and is then used to inoculate substrate (in this case barley grain) to provide grain spawn. which will then be transferred to a medium that contains all the necessary nutrition to allow the mycelium to grow further. Eventually, the mycelium will fruit as shown in the photographs below.

Growing interest

The numbers of participants had originally been capped at 10 so that the club would have plenty of resources for its members. There are now 24 members with regular enquiries from people who wish to come along. All are welcome and our members come from within the James Hutton Institute community but also include members of the public who have heard about the club, usually by word of mouth. 

Here are some of the results!

Mushroom paper

The material in the top left picture above is a version of paper made from Dryad’s saddle (Cerioporus squamosus) a basidiomycete bracket fungus also known as pheasant’s back and considered a good edible especially when it is young. This is one of the mushrooms that the EFC hope to grow in the future as it thrives on dead or dying wood. The cell walls of mushrooms are made from a biological polymer called chitin which is similar to cellulose from which plant paper can be made, so we thought that it would be an interesting thing to do.

Dyrad’s saddle proved a good candidate for paper making as it has strong fibres. The Dryad’s saddle was cut into pieces and put in a blender with a small amount of water and then blended until the mushroom became a pulp. We poured the slurry into a wooden frame with mesh underneath and let the water drain out, and then used paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Different mushrooms produce different coloured paper of differing strengths.

Food and medicinal

The second picture (next to the mushroom paper) is Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), which has a long history of use in East Asian medicine. We grow it using hard wood fuel pellets and some soy hulls (to provide extra nutrition). In the UK lion’s mane is protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but it is an easy mushroom to grow as it has aggressive mycelium. Its health benefits are believed to support mental health, the immune system, brain function and stress responses. In addition, they have been reported to help people get to sleep. Depending on conditions, this mushroom can take from 3-5 weeks from grain spawn to fruit (produce mushrooms). It is a mushroom that does not taste like the average supermarket mushroom. It has a mild, sweet, taste with a firm and meaty texture.

Cooking mushrooms

The best way we find to cook mushrooms is…. Simply. We usually start off with a high heat to remove excess moisture, then lower the temperature, add some olive oil and/or butter with salt and pepper and fry. With any new mushroom it is best just to try a little amount first as some people may have some undesirable reactions which are usually due to the chitin content of the mushrooms.

The taste can change with length of cooking. For example, the third picture in the group above is of yellow oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus citrinopileatus), otherwise known as the golden oyster mushroom. This is a fast-growing mushroom with lots of fruits, and as it is a warm-weather strain, it isn’t found in the UK. This strain of oyster mushroom can be grown on a wide range of materials from supplemented sawdust, straw, coffee grounds and/or cardboard.

These mushrooms lose the yellow colour when they are cooked. If they are undercooked, they taste bitter, but if they are cooked for the correct amount of time, they have a balanced “nutty” flavour. If they are cooked until they are crispy then they can taste a bit like bacon. This species can produce mushrooms from grain spawn in as little as a week if the conditions are correct.

Author | contact

Gill has been approached to do a podcast, a talk at Dundee University and asked if she was interested in writing a book. Who would have thought so much could happen in under a year? It just shows that in this case the world is indeed your oyster (mushroom!).

Gill Banks (PhD) is a researcher based in the Agroecology group at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee. The polytunnel lies in the west side of the Living Field garden sited on the Hutton’s Mylnefield Farm.

Contact: Gill.Banks@hutton.ac.uk

Ed: thanks to Gill for this note on the Edible Fungi Club – it’s good to see the Living Field polytunnel in use again.

[Published 14 January 2024 – minor editing possible over the next few days]

Medicinals through the ages I

A contribution to Monks and Medicinals at the Hospitalfield Beer & Berries Festival 21 August 2021. A brief history of medicinal plants in the ‘western’ world: Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hildegard. First part of a series listing books and web links referred to on the day.


Civilisations sustain themselves on the major food plants – the cereals, legumes, vegetables and the grasses and fodders for livestock – but many other plants have been eaten, less for bulk than for special taste or healing. These are the culinary and medicinal herbs, used throughout human evolution, and more recently here by mesolithic hunters, neolithic farmers, and most people that came after them [1]. Such plants have many uses.

  • They complete a varied diet, which (we know from recent research) supports a diverse and healthy microbial community, or microbiome, in the gut.
  • Some are placed on the skin as poultices, ointments, wound-herbs, repellants (yarrow, mallow, plantain, kidney vetch, etc.)
  • And others are eaten for general health, e.g. the vitamins (culinary herbs, rose hip syrup), or …
  • To cure or alleviate specific ailments (most other medicinals).

The gut microbiome? People are used to hearing about the five-a-day – the portions of vegetable and fruit needed to maintain general health – but imagine eating 20 or even 30 different plant species in a day or so. Research has found a link between the range of plants that people consume and the health and functioning of the gut microbiome. If it’s happy and healthy, there’s a chance we might be also. (More on this in Part II.)

Plants having medicinal properties: (top left c’wise) pilewort tubers and roots, betony in flower, meadowsweet in flower, opium poppy exuding latex, rhubarb root mass, angelica stem base and root, fennel.

The common knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants is fading western cultures. In some parts of the world, Indigenous Communities continued to curate a diverse range of species and retain the knowledge of how to use them. Yet the existence of many of these communities is under severe threat from land-grabbing, deforestation and mining [2]. This loss of medicinal plants from habitats and cultures is part of the general loss of biodiversity across the earth, including here in Living Field country.

The Living Field project has grown a wide range of culinary herbs and medicinals since the Garden began in 2004. We learned how to grow them from seed and cuttings and observed their roles in the natural food web – most wild and cultivated herbs offer food and shelter for spiders, hoverflies, bees and other invertebrates. We have not extracted any of their products or eaten the plants themselves – unless they are the well known culinary herbs such as thyme, sage, chervil, parsley, dill, garlic, fennel, rosemary and chive.

History of medicinals

The plants that allowed people to farm and settle in Britain and Ireland (botanical not geopolitical regions) did not grow here after the last ice retreated, but were introduced by waves of migrants arriving from Europe and the farther Mediterranean. The cereals – barley and wheat, and emmer, spelt, rye and oats – and the grain legumes, peas and beans, were all brought here in at various times over the previous 6000 years. These settlers found the climate suitable for their crops and supported high yields, as it does today [3].

With some exceptions, such as nettle, plants and animals that provided fibre for cloth and most of the cropped dye plants were also introduced. In contrast, the medicinal plants used over the millenia were a mix of native and introduced. Some of the natives have been preserved at archaeological sites: the finds of pilewort, meadowsweet, wild iris and others show that our neolithic and Bronze Age age ancestors had an understanding of the plants around them [1].

The knowledge of medicinals must have been, for thousands of years, transmitted through the generations by personal example and teaching. The process is risky – people are displaced, communities wither, knowledge is lost – but a more permanent form of transfer eventually appeared.

Pilewort – Ranunculus ficaria (top left c’wise) single flower, tubers and roots, whole plant (colours reversed), flowers heads seeking the sun in the early morning, close-up of tubers (all images Living Field)
The Greeks and the Romans

The transmission of botanical knowledge in countries that now form Europe was first based on the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. Theophrastus (372 to 286 BCE) and Pliny (ca 23-79CE) helped found the systematic study of natural history [4]. One of the first people to list plants of medicinal value was Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica [5] almost 2000 years ago around 50 CE (Common Era).

Dioscorides and his forebears understood that useful medicinals had to be distinguished from poisons and that some of the more potent medicinals also had poisonous properties and had to be dosed correctly. Of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum he writes:

” … a little of it, taken as much as a grain of ervum (a small seed), is a pain-easer, and a sleep-causer, and a digester … but being drank too much it hurts, making men lethargical, and it kills.”

The early botanists wrote mostly in Greek or Latin, languages that were understandable to few other than the very learned, and many of those were raised in religious houses. De Materia Medica was not translated into English until the 1660s [6], so the plants and the knowledge of them spread across Europe in the original languages with the migrations of Benedictines, Cistercians and other monastic houses.

Opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – showing (left, then c’wise) flower from the side, seed heads, close-up of flower from above, seed head exuding latex, tool used to scour the head (from SE Asia). All images Living Field.
The Monasteries – Monks and Medicinals (and not just monks)

Benedict’s Rules from the 6th Century [7] included care of the unfortunate and care of the sick among the instruments of good works. Cleanliness and bathing were promoted as were medicinals and the herb garden. The plan for monasteries came to include specific areas for the herb garden, the hospital, a place of blood-letting, house of the gardener and an isolation area.

Some of the concepts underlying treatment were not perhaps as scientific as we would expect them today. For quite some time, people – and the plants to cure them – were classified on the balance of four ‘humours’ – hot, cold, wet and dry, a system based on the earlier and widespread ideas of fire, air, water and earth. If you were diagnosed as too hot and wet, then you were treated to counter those humours.

Given all the other feats of technology and engineering the monasteries applied at that time, they must have known more about plants than just their imagined degree of hotness and wetness! Or maybe not.


One of the great polymaths at the time of monastic spread was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an Abbess based in Germany and attached to a Benedictine house. She wrote, among other books, Physica or Subtleties of the divine qualities of created things [8]. A section of Physica deals with medicinal plants, where (even) she began each description as to how hot, cold, wet or dry the plant was. She did not describe the appearance of the plants, which implies she expected nuns and monks to be able to identify the different species and forms.

Hildegard wrote stunning music for her nuns to sing – most of it recently recorded [8] – and did much else to advance the arts and sciences, so it is difficult to believe that she based her medicinal remedies on these four temperaments. Still, she was about right with oats:

“Oats (avena) are hot, with a sharp taste and strong vapor. Oats are a happy and healthy food for people who are well, furnishing them with a cheerful mind and a pure, clear intellect. It also provides good colour and healthy flesh.”

Physica is a link to medicinal lore that goes back to the Ancient Greeks: on the day of Beer & Berries, plants that she wrote about, such as lungwort, fennel, water mint, plantain, tansy, and yarrow, were all found in and around Hospitalfield garden. Many of her recommendations would resonate well with later herbalists. Yarrow, mallow and plantain are all designated as wound-herbs and she warns against greater celandine (whose sap can scour the skin). But she went a bit to the dark side with one or two of her remedies, invoking magic. Here is what she wrote about betony Stachys officinalis [8]:

For someone who is “conjured by fantastic and diabolic incantations, so that the man is insane with love for the woman or the woman insane with love for the man, they should seek betony …… When found, one leaf should be placed in each nostril, and one under the tongue. One leaf should be held in each hand, and one under each foot. The person should fix his eyes intently on the betony. He should do this until the leaves grow hot on his body. This should be repeated until he is better. This will release him from the madness of his love … “.

Betony, Stachys officinalis, a relative of the odorous hedge woundwort, is from a group of plants that have many medicinal uses. Bees find it to their liking. The central, inset in the photographs is of a mature flower head that has dropped some of its seed.

The story so far …

People here have used wild and cultivated plants to flavour food and ease pain. There are uncertainties in the prehistoric record over the uses of specific plants, their preparation and how knowledge was transmitted across generations. The written systematic studies that have come down to us from Theophrastus in Greece and later workers, especially Dioscorides, were copied and transported across Europe with the spread of Christian monastic life.

The Abbess Hildegard, over 9 centuries ago, compiled works on natural history that can be read today, and composed choral music that is still sung and now recorded. She was part of the great intellectual and spiritual life in monastic houses. When she was writing and composing – she died 1179 – monasteries and their knowledge of plants was spreading north to Scotland. Part II of this series tells of the contribution they made to agriculture and medicine.


[1] Plants have been used for purposes other than food and fibre throughout human evolution, see for example: Hardy K (2021) Paleomedicine and the evolutionary context of medicinal plant use. Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia 31: 1–15 https://doi.org/10.1007/s43450-020-00107-4. Extract from the text “ … the archeological evidence for cured ailments and medicinal plants that cover a wide range of both curative and invasive practices and treatments suggests a high level of confidence and  medicinal knowledge deep into human evolutionary time.” 

Books that include medicinal plants in Scotland: (a) Dickson C, Dickson J. (2000) Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. (b) Darwin T. (1996, 2008) The Scots Herbal. Berlinn, Edinburgh. (c) Milliken W, Bridgewater S. (2004) Flora Celtica Berlinn, Edinburgh. (d) Beith M. (1995, 2018) Healing threads – traditional medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Berlinn Edinburgh.

[2] Indigenous Knowledge. For general background, try the following and forward links: UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. There are many articles on indigenous knowledge of plants for medicinal and other uses. A recent article, open access (available free): Camara-Leret, R; Bascompte, J. 2021. Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge. PNAS 118, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2103683118. For specific regions try searching for ‘location’ ‘indigenous knowledge’ ‘medicinal’, etc.

[3] An article in the Living Field’s Climate and Crops series explains why the climate here is good for crop productivity: The Long Cool Summer.

[4] Theophrastus: try Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ref – Ierodiakonou, Katerina, “Theophrastus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Pliny the Elder: try Wikipedia.

[5] Background to Dioscorides: try Wikipedia.

[6] De Materia Medica used here: an English Translation by Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000). Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. ‘Being an Herbal with many other Medicinal Materials written in Greek in the first century of the Common Era – a new indexed version in modern English by TA Osbaldeston and RPA Wood’. IBIDIS Press. Available to buy and there is an online version. [Ed: remarkable, includes a detailed history of previous translations and other sources.]

[7] The Rule of St Benedict , written ca 535-540 CE (but not all sources agree). Various links at Britannica: Benedictine Rule. Wikipedia: Rule of St Benedict.

[8] Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translation from the Latin by Priscilla Throop, Illustrations by Mary Elder Jacobsen. Healing Arts Press, Rochester. For Hildegard’s recorded music: see the early music groups Sequentia and Gothic Voices.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com.

Many of the plants shown here were grown in the Living Field garden near Dundee by Gladys Wright, Jackie Thompson and helpers.

[Updated 28 September 2021 with small alteration and additional reference.]

The Garden at Hospitalfield

The renewed walled garden at Hospitalfield, Arbroath. Monks and medicinals. Artists and gentry. Now community art, a great diversity of plants and a welcoming place to relax.

The Living Field’s experience with medicinal plants led to an invitation to talk about the history and present uses of plants for health and healing at the Beer and Berries Festival to be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021.

The old walled garden there has been re-designed and replanted. It’s had a history from 1260 when Hospitalfield was founded, some time after monks from Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders travelled north to establish Arbroath Abbey.

Given all this history and the clear success of the new plantings visible on the Hospitalfield web site [1], it was timely to see the garden first hand before sharing knowledge of medicinals.

A great diversity of plants

In late July 2021, the walled garden nurtured hundreds of flowering species (and some yet to flower), some native to the region but many from Mediterranean and even sub-tropical climatic regions – a great range of textures and exotic smells, teeming with bees and other insects.

Some of the original medicinals recorded from the 1200s had been planted, but also notable species from later in the garden’s history. Their story is related, with drawings, in a book by Laura Darling [2] describing the garden’s history, published this year.

Beer and Berries Festival August 2021

The festival of Beer and Berries will be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021. From the web site [3]: “It’s the height of summer and Angus is bursting with fruit and full of grain …

” Beer and Berries is a “regional festival showcase, connecting food and drink producers and suppliers to buyers and customers, set alongside a programme of talks, workshops, events and music.”

Hospitalfield garden is a gem of a place, where art, horticulture and science come together.

Thanks to Laura Mansfield, for the original invitation to contribute to Beer and Berries, Gillian Stirton from the Hutton communications unit for suggesting the Living Field’s input, and Kate Robinson, head gardener, for correspondence on native and introduced medicinal plants in Scotland.

Author / contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

Sources | links

[1] Hospitalfield at https://hospitalfield.org.uk/

[2] Darling, Laura. 2021. In the garden at Hospitalfield. Published by Hospitalfield, Arbroath, Angus.

[3] Beer and Berries Festival, 21 August 2021 – booking essential: https://hospitalfield.org.uk/visit/events/beer-berries-2021/


One of the dark materialsa medicinal for a range of ailments … tubers found at archaeological sites suggesting it was eaten … flowers open in the sun … storage in root tubers … dispersal by bulbils

Madwort, mugwort, sneezewort, spearwort – worts apiece. But among the earliest to show itself is the pilewort or lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria: first the deep green leaves, then the buds and soon the bright yellow buttercup flowers.

Its ‘business end’ lies in the dark, just below the soil surface. The foliage has gone by summer, but a collection of small root tubers holds the plant’s stores until next spring.

Pilewort unearthed: whole plant just about to flower (right) showing the tubers above the main root mass; and closer views of the tubers (left), each about 2 cm long, the hanging one 5 cm. Photo right is edited to distinguish foliage, tubers and roots.

Prehistory – food?

The tubers, usually charred remains, have been found preserved at a range of archaeological sites throughout Europe, extending back to the Mesolithic [1], for example at mesolithic Staosnaig on Colonsay [2] and the Iron Age period at Howe Broch, Orkney [3]. The implication is that the tubers were used as food. Archaeobotanists working on the middle Bronze age in Sweden ‘considered that the tubers had been roasted and eaten like popcorn’ [3]. There are also records of the leaves being eaten.

Most plants in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, are poisonous and there are reports that Pilewort has poisoned cattle and sheep [4]. It is difficult to find definitive, recent evidence that it can or cannot be safely eaten by humans, though Long [4] cites Cornevin’s 1887 book that the plant “is not poisonous when young, as in Germany the first shoots are eaten as a salad, but that it becomes so later … “. Other records [1] suggest roots of various species among the Ranunculaceae, which includes plants much more poisonous than pilewort, have been eaten safely when cooked. Given the uncertainties, it would be wise not to try it!

Remedy for a common complaint

The pilewort, also called figwort, is claimed as cure for haemorrhoids, known colloquially as piles or figs. Grigson [5], quotes Gerard’s (1597) observation that the piles “when often bathed with the juice mixed with wine, or with the sick man’s urine, are drawne togither and dried up, and the paine quite taken away”.

Grieve [6] writes that the plant is “used externally as an ointment, made from the bruised herb with fresh lard, applied locally night and morning, or in the form of poultices, fomentations, or in suppositories.” The hanging tubers are also said to offer a physical resemblance to the complaint.

Pilewort flowers, heart-shaped leaves (lower right), and plants early morning, frosted next to a clump of lords and ladies (lower left).

Habitat and reproduction

Plants seem to thrive best in locations that are partly shaded, where sunlight filters through to them in the morning. They sometimes form a near-complete cover, but in nutrient rich places, other plants, such as cleavers and ground elder, will soon grow taller and shade them. In some years, they suffer repeated frosts, from which they recover in a few hours. After a very cold mid-April night, the pilewort in the photograph above (lower left) looked fine by mid-morning while Arum maculatum nearby still displayed frost-damaged, hanging, curved leaf stalks.

The plant has a further interesting feature in the bubils formed in leaf axils. Kerner, in the 1894 translation of his Natural History of Plants [7] reported that when growing in sunny sites, the flowers were visited by pollen-eating beetles, flies and bees that pollinated the flowers, leading to seed formation. But when in deep shade, pollination was less successful, seeds were few and the plants responded by producing “little bulbous bodies in the axils of their upper foliage leaves”, which on becoming detached when the plant withered, were dispersed and gave rise to new plants.

Today the difference reported by Kerner is considered genetic, those plants reproducing mostly by seed and those mostly by vegetative bulbils being classed as different subspecies [8].

Pilewort grows in various places in the Living Field garden. This time of year, it will be flowering beneath cut hedges.

Plate showing pilewort bulbils and root tubers (right) from Kerner von Marilaun’s The Natural History of Plants [7], taken from author’s copy.

Sources | references

[1] The Sheffield Archaeobotany site: Charles, M., Crowther, A., Ertug, F., Herbig, C., Jones, G., Kutterer, J., Longford, C., Madella, M., Maier, U., Out, W., Pessin, H., Zurro, D., (2009) Archaeobotanical Online Tutorial http://archaeobotany.dept.shef.ac.uk/ https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/archaeobotany/tubers/identification/ranunculus-ficaria

[2] Mithen S, et al. 2001. Plant use in the Mesolithic: evidence from Staosnaig, Isle of Colonsay, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science 28, 223-234, https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1999.053 (Institutional or paid access only).

[3] Dickson C & Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK.

[4] Pilewort as a poisonous plant. 1) Long HC 1927. Poisonous plants on the farm. MAFF, HMSO, London. 2) Forsyth AA. 1954 (1968) British Poisonous plants. MAFF Bulletin 161, HMSO, London. 3) Cooper MR, Johnson AW 1984 Poisonous plants in Britain. MAFF Reference book 161, HMSO, London.

[5] Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. Paperback 1975 by Paladin.

[6] Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Now online, read the page on lesser celandine at botanical.com.

[7] Anton Kerner von Marilaun. 1894 (English edition). The Natural history of plants. Translated by FW Oliver. Blackie and Son, London.

[8] Stace AC 1997 (second edition) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Bog standard medicinals

Throughout August, wet ditches and banks and boggy corners are filled with wild plants in flower and host to many types of insect.

Many of these plants have at some time or another been used in medicinal preparations – meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria for fevers, and with willow the source of precursors of aspirin, valerian Valeriana officinalis as sedative, wild angelica Angelica sylvestris as condiment and cure-all, sneezewort Achillea ptarmica to clear a blocked nose, hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum for ‘catarrhs and coughs’ and yellow iris Iris pseudacorus whose uses are so wide-ranging that  one alone can’t be mentioned.

Hardly valued now, they still offer rich findings to those who wish to explore our botanical heritage.

Medicinals in a wet ditch August 2015 (Living Field)
Medicinals in a wet ditch August 2015 (Living Field)

The roadside bank and ditch above, in Strathnairn, holds, within a three metre length, all the herbs mentioned here except hemp-agrimony. Sneezewort is growing at the front on drier ground. Lower images, floral branches of meadowsweet (right) and angelica,  each home to many insects.

These plants thrive where the surrounding vegetation is semi-natural or else grazing land having few or no inputs of mineral fertiliser.

Elsewhere, the runoff from well-fertilised arable or grass encourages aggressive and dominant weeds – willow herb, thistles, nettle, docks and the sprawling cleavers – that soon oust the more delicate and slower growing.

Hemp-agrimony in north east Cumbria August 2015 (Living Field)
Hemp-agrimony in north east Cumbria August 2015 (Living Field)



The Living Field garden grows all the medicinal plants mentioned here, but for garden angelica rather than wild angelica.

Sources for medicinal uses: Grigson G 1958, 1975 An Englishman’s Flora. Darwin T 1996, 2008 The Scots Herbal. Plants for a Future www.pfaf.org

[Live on 16 September 2015]

175 years ago today

As if to presage our various web-entries on natural fibres, oils, medicinals and culinary spices, the notes below, from the Advertiser, of 1 May 1840, reproduced in the book ‘The Trade and Shipping of Dundee 1780-1850 by Jackson & Kinnear [1], confirm Dundee’s desire to trade globally in natural products in the mid-1800s.

[Images to be added]

Arrival of the Selma at Dundee

The time (1840) was transitional for Dundee and its hinterland. It was at the beginning of a phase of international trade that gave the area status as a port and manufacturing centre. Jackson & Kinnear relate that the barque Selma arrived on that day from Calcutta … the first with cargo directly for Dundee.

Selma contained, among other things, over 1000 bales of jute, many sacks of unseed [2] and linseed, 300 bags of sugar, more than 1100 bags of rice, coir fibre from coconut and almost 2000 whole coconuts, and teak planks and bamboo; also buffalo horns; spices and condiments – preserved and dry ginger, canisters of arrowroot, tea, black pepper, cloves, nutmegs, mustard seed, castor oil, chillies and cubebs [3]; hogsheads of wine; and then borax and camphor; samples of hemp Cannabis sativa, presumably for fibre. This is an amazingly varied cargo of plant, animal and mineral goods coming into Dundee, on one ship, 175 years ago.

Half-forgotten plants and natural products

Many items in the Selma’s cargo are still in common usage today, but others may be less familiar. Are you kitchen-cupboard-ready?

Arrowroot a starch from tuberous parts of the roots of some tropical species, e.g. cassava Manihot esculenta, used as a thickening agent in cooking and to make arrowroot biscuits – biscuits your granny gave you, proper, decent, thin, no chocolate, no sugar, could be dunked in tea without falling to bits and dropping in – just biscuits.

Castor oil (beavers love it) from the castor-oil plant Ricinus communis, among other things, used as a laxative: pinch the nose, open the mouth and in with the spoon! Castor oil has many legitimate medicinal and industrial uses, but its laxative, and thereby dehydrative, properties have been used as a means of systematic punishment and torture [4]. The seed-oil is extracted by complex methods; the seeds also contain the highly poisonous ricin.

Borax (not a superhero but) a white crystalline substance made from a salty deposit when lakes in some parts of the world such as Tibet evaporate. Borax is used as a mild disinfectant and cleaner. It was put on children and other humans to cure infections like athlete’s foot and dabbed on mouth ulcers (it stings!).

Camphor. A strongly aromatic extract from some tropical trees, also found in the plant rosemary. Went into mothballs, made old drawers smell funny. Camphorated oil got rubbed onto childrens’ skin to do it good.

Cubebs from Piper cubeba a bit like black pepper corns but with a short stalk (‘pepper with a tail’), mainly grown in Indonesia, and traded for many centuries in that region; employed as an aphrodisiac in Goa as reported by the traveller Linschoten in the 1580s (Q: how did these explorers and ethnobotanists get to know such things – did they experiment?), stimulant and antiseptic, and a tonic for ‘every disease that flesh is heir to’ [3] ….. and much more.

What were they like!

The question you have to ask is what Dundee folk were up to in those days 175 years ago, at least those few that could afford all these exotic imports. Hemp, cubebs, cloves, hogsheads of wine … the ingredients of wild days and nights, and then they came down to earth with borax, camphor, castor oil and coir shirts. And what about the buffalo horns – what were they used for?

Sources and notes

  1. Jackson G, Kinnear K. 1991 The trade and shipping of Dundee 1780-1850. Publication 31, Abertay Historical Society, Dundee. Scanned 2010 and available online http://www.abertay.org.uk. The list of commodities carried on the Selma is given at page 20 and Ch 3 note 32.
  2. Unseed – this had the Living Field in a stir. Even Burkhill’s 2400 pages did not list it [see note 3]. But thanks to an online note found from an internet entity named ‘cyberpedant’, we are reassured that the original was likely ‘Linseed’ and that when documents are scanned, the shape ‘Li’ is commonly read as ‘U’. Relief! Otherwise we’d be scanning the world for unseed seed and never finding it.
  3. Cubebs. Notes above taken from Burkhill IH, 1966, A Dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Malaysia (2400+ pages). On the aforesaid properties, Burkhill cites Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Historical Voyages, published in English 1610.
  4. Castor oil. The author Umberto Eco, in the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna (2004), relates in Ch 12 a story of a journalist in fascist Italy being forced to swallow a bottle of castor oil as punishment. But after the first two purgings, he regained enough presence of body and mind to bottle and seal the next expulsion of oil and faeces. The bottled contents, sealed from the atmosphere, were kept in hope that the fascist tide would turn, and when it did, the means were found to trace the original perpetrator and pour the 21-year-old vintage down his throat. A delicious passage!

Hairy teacake

Of the photos taken at the Commonwealth Games fabulous opening night in 2014, the one icon of note missing from the collection was the Tunnock’s Teacake, the giant red and silver teacake replicas on legs, cavorting around the arena … not a single photo turned out.

That’s why we added the nearest thing – the marsh mallow. This plant was the source of marshmallow, the sticky confection used in cakes  and now mostly replaced by other sweet sticky stuff, still called marshmallow. Yet it’s the hairy relatives of the marsh mallow that are more widely cultivated.

Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)
Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)

The marsh mallow Althea officinalis is a plant that lives in marshes and is one of the mallow family – that is why it came to be known as marsh mallow –  but it also be grown in gardens and the Living Field has a few individuals in its Medicinals collection. The name officinalis indicates its use by the apothecary, in this case as a poultice, something to put on wounds. The plant has a darkness about it, the not-quite-white flowers never without a purplish tinge spreading up from the base, but  its value to people over the ages is unquestioned.

This mallow family has many other useful plants in it, notably two  that are valuable because of their fibres. Cotton and kapok are from warm countries and, unusual among the fibre plants, produce the fibrous material around their seeds, whereas most commercial fibre plants produce it in their stems. Cotton is now grown worldwide, over more area than any other fibre crop. Kapok is less familiar – the fibres used to be stuffed in pillows and furniture – but most kapok now sold is artificial, not made from the plant, but still called kapok.

The flowers of these plants are similar, the parts arranged in ‘fives’. (The specific name of kapok is Ceiba pentandra). But plants of the mallow family differ in many other aspects. Mallows in Britain are small or large perennial herbs, the marsh mallow reaching one and half to two metres; cotton can reach two to three metres; but the kapok is a big tree. An example is shown at the lower left of the images above, the red flowers colouring the outer branches of the tree, this one near Mandalay in Burma.

There is more on cotton and kapok on the living Field’s new Fibres pages, part of the 5000 years project.



Opium poppy by Jean Duncan

Jean's watercolour sketch of opium poppy in the Living Field garden, July 2014 (Jean Duncan)
Jean’s watercolour sketch of opium poppy in the Living Field garden, July 2014 (Jean Duncan)

For the 10-year celebration, Jean spent time in the Garden looking and sketching, assembling material for teaching and an ebook. The opium poppies Papaver somniferum were a fine sight, but short-lived, this warm year. See also … Jean Duncan’s page, Metamorphosis, the garden’s Medicinals page.